Flash Review, Issue #004

Here are a few short reviews of the books I’ve been reading recently.

 The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones

This book was practically impossible to tear myself away from to do otherwise unimportant things like eating, sleeping, or going to my job.  Blending elements of thriller, historical fiction, and the supernatural, THE STRING DIARIES is first and foremost the story of a line of women with the desire to survive in the face of unimaginable danger and, secondarily, about the lovers and family members willing to do anything to ensure they can do just that.

There’s little I can say without giving away key elements of the story, but this is one novel that doesn’t hesitate to make its characters pay heavy prices, and even its relatively “happy” ending has enough foundation built so much earlier in the story that it doesn’t feel oddly deus ex machina.  Definitely a recommended read.

Black and White (Noughts & Crosses) by Malorie Blackman

My official Goodreads review for this book is very simple:

The only thing I can really say about this book without giving up a lot of spoilers is that it makes me want to lay on the floor in a ball and cry in the best way possible.

The only thing I’d want to add is that I feel this book is very important for people with racial privilege to understand the base level of racism in the US.  I feel Blackman’s attention to detail really digs in to make the reader understand, on both a conscious and unconscious level, what discrimination feels like.

Summer Anime 2014: The Launchboard

I’ve never much been one to watch simulcast anime, but since receiving a Crunchyroll Premium membership as a gift (and subsequent access to simulcasting Sailor Moon Crystal), I figure now may be a decent time to start.  I’ll be watching a number of anime this season, and I’ll be making my marathon-or-drop recommendations at the end of the season.

Sailor Moon Crystal.  I mean, really, did you think this wouldn’t be top of my list? It’s been my number one since the date was settled, and the first episode didn’t fail to deliver what I was looking for: an updated art style that followed the story I remember while adding enough newness to feel fresh and fun.

Sword Art Online II. Recently, I made my boyfriend and two of my friends watch SAO so we could watch Season Two.  I was pretty sorely disappointed with the second half of the first season, but my satisfaction with the recent English translation of the light novel brought me back to the franchise.

Aldnoah Zero. My boyfriend was particularly interested in checking this out based on its promotions on Crunchyroll, and the first episode made me incredibly interested in finding out what happens next.  Aldnoah may be my next Attack on Titan: the first episode yanked me into its intense and dismal sci-fi universe.  The suspense might actually kill me, but I’ll try to hold out.

Ao Haru Ride.  Eng. Blue Spring Ride.  The manga for Ao Haru Ride is adorable and feels like a bit of a spiritual successor to series such as Kimi ni Todoke and Sukitte ii Na Yo.  I’m looking forward to this series, even if it’s a bit on the over-light side.  (Besides, I’ll have to recover from Aldnoah SOMEHOW.)

GLASSLIP. A friend recommended this after watching the first episode herself, and I found the opening episode… interesting.  I’m not sure if I like it or not, so I may end up dropping this series if the second episode doesn’t give me a more clear idea of why I should care about it.

I’m also playing a little bit of catch-up with Haikyu!, a men’s volleyball anime that’s intense and also very intricately animated.  I played two years of volleyball in middle school, and while I was really — not very good at it, it’s always been something I enjoyed, so watching Haikyu! has been a lot of fun so far.

There are so many exciting series to watch on simulcast, even if you’re not totally binging on the series you missed while you were finishing your school year or running your kids between practices and classes.  What anime are you watching this summer?

Marathon or Drop? Akuma no Riddle

The Spring 2014 anime season was a little bare, but there’s always at least one or two eye-catching titles I want to check out every week.  This season, the only anime I was compelled to watch — aside from Soul Eater NOT!, which I’d been anticipating — was Akuma no Riddle, released in English as Riddle Story of the Devil.

The thirteen girls in the Black Class in Akuma no Riddle.

The thirteen girls in the Black Class in Akuma no Riddle.

Akuma no Riddle is the story of the Black Class, thirteen girls in a single special class at an elite high school in Japan.  Twelve of the girls are assassins of varying calibers; the thirteenth is their target.  At least until one of the assassins, Toukaku, turns around and steps up as a defender of the target, a sweet and clueless-seeming girl named Haru.

I started watching Akuma no Riddle with a certain level of expectation. It’s one of the first yuri/shoujo-ai anime I’ve seen — unless you count Sailor Moon, which doesn’t really count in the North American dub — and based on the variety of yuri/shoujo-ai manga I’ve read in the past, I was curious to see what Akuma no Riddle might do the same or differently.

In terms of the art, my expectations were met completely.  A fast Google search brings up plenty of clips from the manga, and the anime’s color style is a good translation of the black-and-white manga.

One of my favorite things about this anime?  The super-creepy facial expressions.

Facial expressions are usually my favorite thing about anime and manga, anyway, but the expressions in Akuma no Riddle pretty much blast other creepy facial expressions out of the water.  The best ones are from Nio, the small blonde towards the front of the cast picture above, who serves as the main organizer of the girls in the Black Class.  She’s got by far the creepiest of manga expressions, and the anime stays faithful to that as well.

When watching an action-adventure anime, there are really two main aspects to evaluate: character development and awesome action scenes.  Like many action-adventure anime — especially ones with just 12 episodes, as Akuma no Riddle has — this series manages to hit only one of these aspects.  The assassin-on-assassin fight scenes are intense and a ton of fun, even though some of them turn pretty gross, and each girl’s specialty, ranging from sword-fighting to bombs to a pair of giant scissors, makes each episode an exciting ride.

The girl on the left is my favorite character and has a relatively in-depth backstory compared to the other characters.

The girl on the left is my favorite character and has a relatively in-depth backstory compared to the other characters.

Unfortunately, the time devoted to the fight scenes significantly reduces the amount of time available to develop the characters, their personalities, or their relationships to one another.  While one pair of assassins in particular has a pretty cute relationship (for assassins, anyway), their friendship-but-probably-more is the only one besides that of Toukaku and Haru.  I was itching to see more interactions between the characters — they live in pairs in the dorms, with some getting along well and others, uh, not — and more time devoted to each one before she mysteriously disappeared after her assassination attempt.

Akuma no Riddle is definitely the sort of show to marathon when you’re bored or just want to watch some epic fight scenes, and its 6-hour total run time makes it easy to marathon in one night or on a sick day.  But if your anime viewing habits require more character-building, this may not be quite for you.

You can find Akuma no Riddle on Hulu under the title Riddle Story of the Devil.

Yen On: Light novels upcoming from Yen Press’ new line

One of the things I was most excited to learn at Book Expo America 2014 was the launch of Yen On, a light novel initiative from Yen Press.  Yen Press publishes a lot of my favorite manga series — including Soul Eater, Soul Eater NOT!, and the Madoka*Magica franchise — and the titles they’ve announced for Yen On are all really exciting.

A light novel is a style of book in Japan designed to appeal to manga and anime consumers.  Often science fiction or fantasy and very plot-centric, light novels are sometimes serialized in magazines the way manga chapters are, and many light novels have been adapted into anime.  A few of these include Toradora!, Sword Art Online, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Spice & Wolf, and Durarara!!.

Six light novel titles to be published in 2014 were announced this year, with two from a single series (Sword Art Online) in addition to four additional titles I’ll talk about here.  You may have noticed I’ve included links to IndieBound (print books) and Bookish (digital books) instead of Amazon — currently, many titles from Hachette Book Group, which owns Yen Press/Yen On, are not available due to the Amazon-Hachette feud.  Independent bookstores as well as large chains like Barnes & Noble and Books A Million continue to keep Hachette titles in stock, which is why I’ve linked to those vendors in this article.

Continue reading

Flash Review, Issue #003

Here are a few short reviews of the books I’ve been reading recently.

Audrey, Wait! by Robin Benway

Purchased at Main Point Books.

I first heard of this book around the time it first came out in 2008, and the book’s concept stuck in my mind since then: a girl breaks up with a boyfriend, who writes a hit pop song about their breakup.  Young adult books about the concept and consequences of fame always interest me, so this book had me hooked from the description – but it’s way better than I thought it would be.

Audrey herself, who narrates in the first person, is funny without being downright nasty or mean, and her conscious use of “PSAT words” throughout the story makes her smart and hilarious.  While I didn’t think she made the best of decisions in the story – especially when she gives a very sarcastic interview to a newspaper reporter – it was easy to see how a seventeen-year-old would make those decisions, and she was very relatable.  Definitely would recommend.

Shooting Stars by Allison Rushby

Purchased at Main Point Books.

This book was a lot of fun, but the overall story ended up much more serious than I imagined a story about a teenage paparazzo to be.  The story itself felt very genuine, especially when Jo described her night job, though the main plot of faking her way into a teen therapy facility was a little less believable.

With nice writing, a fun and interesting protagonist, and an entertaining plot, I’d recommend SHOOTING STARS as a fun read with a serious edge.  Great for teen readers, especially ones who enjoy celebrity-related plotlines.

The Lascar’s Dagger by Glenda Larke

Provided by publisher for review.

While I tend to appreciate more subtlety in my fantasy, I appreciated the issues the book tackled. The world Larke builds is fascinating, completely believable, and crafted with nods to many aspects of society.  I’ll admit I found a lot more enjoyment in the secondary protagonists – while the premise of Saker Rampion, the protagonist, was very interesting and certainly drew me in, what sold me on this book was the fascinating view from secondary characters Ardhi and Sorrel.

Definitely would read the rest of the series. I’d recommend this book to fantasy readers with an interest in exploring colonialism in fiction.  For anyone else, it’s a really fun ride.

The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey

Provided by publisher for review. Full review at Girls in Capes.

I’m not sure what exactly I expected from this mysterious book – its jacket copy contains nearly no hints about what the book contains, except that it’s the story of a “gifted” girl who lives in a scientific facility. But the novel took a turn I didn’t quite see coming, then hurtled along with hardly a pause for breath.

The book is written in a style that’s not quite for everyone, but the themes it explores are accessible and fascinating. Recommended for readers of thriller and horror who also appreciate science fiction, especially those who can handle gore (not quite to the level of another personal favorite, Battle Royale, but still pretty gross) and are interested in science fiction that asks difficult questions.

Battle Royale: Angels’ Border by TAKAMI Koushun

Speaking of Battle Royale… Contains spoilers for the original novel. This manga side story/companion to Takami’s Battle Royale contains lovely art and a pair of engaging story arcs centering on the girls who hole up in the lighthouse that the protagonist meets partway through the novel.

While those who haven’t read the novel or seen the film may not love the story as much because the girls’ rather horrific deaths will be shown by the end of the first chapter, the target reader of ANGELS’ BORDER – which will be completed in two volumes – is obviously a reader who has read the novel and feels strongly connected to the characters.

This manga deals with many heavy topics also addressed in BR – the novel is heavily focused on tyranny, fear, and human desperation – but adds additional heavy topics from the teens’ lives before they were forced into the experiment such as dealing with suicide in the family, homosexuality/homophobia, and more. It makes for a heavy read, but rounds out the lives of characters who weren’t fully explored in the novel.

I would definitely hesitate to recommend this manga for those who haven’t read or watched Battle Royale. However, it’s an excellent read for those who HAVE read and enjoyed the original, and a must-read for anyone who wanted to know more about the girls in the lighthouse – or any of the kids in the class.

Read or Drop? Attack on Titan: Before the Fall, Vol. 1

I wasn’t sucked into the Shingeki no Kyojin/Attack on Titan craze until the week after the final episode was simulcast, namely because my first awareness of the anime was listening to the complaints of my friends who simply couldn’t wait until the next episode aired.  As a person significantly lacking patience and fully aware of that fact, I figured I would wait until the full season had aired before starting to watch.

Reading Attack on Titan: Before the Fall Vol. 1 elicited the exact feeling I was hoping to avoid back then.  Though many aspects of the volume’s storytelling depend on previous knowledge of the franchise – either through the currently-available manga or the 2013 anime – the story itself is very fresh.

The editor’s description says the volume is about a boy who “has spent his life in chains as a freakish curiosity and a feared abomination,” but the story’s real draw is the social aspect of the story, which focuses on how years of peace and the human desire to explore has warped the society of the Shiganshina district inside Wall Maria.  Within the first few pages, readers are introduced to members of a Titan-worshipping cult, a brief but interesting phenomenon, while the structure of how the protagonist, Kuklo, is treated is a fascinating exploration of being trapped within a trap.

In terms of art, Before the Fall is a marked improvement over the main manga series in most terms.  Where the main series’ art feels very rough, unsteady, and disproportionate in inappropriate places, especially in the earliest volumes, the art of Before the Fall is smoother and looks more finished.  This may be due to the relative inexperience of the main series’ mangaka, Isayama Hajime, for whom Attack on Titan is the first published work.  The artist for Before the Fall, Shiki Satoshi, has worked on a number of series, including Kamikaze from Tokyopop (2006-2008).

However, the style of Before the Fall fits well enough with Attack on Titan that the two can believably be set in the same world, with destroyed buildings and grotesque Titans drawn in a similarly grimy manner.  (It is a horror series, after all.)  In fact, the largest departure, in my opinion, is the difference in style between the protagonists: Kuklo and Sharle are drawn in a bizarrely pretty fashion – they’re so good-looking that they almost don’t seem to fit in a gritty horror manga, especially considering Kuklo’s spent most of the manga getting the living crap beaten out of him.

Despite that, the volume is engaging, despite a bit of lag in the middle, with a good hook for the first chapter and indication of an interesting direction for the next volume in the last.  I hesitate to recommend picking up the series at this point, however – the end of the volume leaves the next volume’s storyline pretty ambiguous, and Vol. 2 will definitely be the important point to decide to read or drop.

Story: 4 out of 5

Art: 3.5 out of 5

Overall: 4 out of 5

Flash Review, Issue #002

Here are a few short reviews of the books I’ve been reading recently. (You might notice a lot of speculative fiction in here!)

Honor’s Knight by Rachel Bach

This book definitely doesn’t suffer Second Book Syndrome. The continued adventures of Devi Morris takes readers from Fortune’s Fool to the wider universe as she tries to unravel what’s happening to her and why she can’t just shoot all her problems.

Though I wasn’t a huge Devi fan after reading Fortune’s Pawn, HONOR’S KNIGHT delved further into her personality, pulled back from the less-than-interesting romantic subplot, and engaged with some really great universe-building. I’d say this book is great for a space opera fan and is more than ready to pull any reluctant readers of this series back in.